When abstract expressionist painter Hiram Williams offered to donate part of his collection to Carroll Community College last year, the college sent art director Maggie Ball to wander through his garden of artistic delights, picking and choosing.
She returned from the artist's Gainesville, Fla., studio to the Westminster college with 110 canvases and drawings of exultant snakes, bleak landscapes and "the audience" -- a lone human eye -- gazing passively on the universe.
The college's first exhibit of Williams' work, containing 80 of the 110 paintings and multimedia drawings Ball selected, will open today. His paintings are also in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery and National Museum of American Art in Washington.
"Hiram was first a teacher. He wants his work to be seen and understood by students. He didn't want it to be mysterious," Ball said. "He is an artist, scholar, teacher, writer -- unlike anyone I've ever met."
The exhibit is designed to be accessible to people unfamiliar with abstract expressionism, or "suggestivism," the term Williams prefers. Ball has written an explanation to accompany each painting and drawing, based on her conversations with Williams and her observations and art knowledge.
A painter, she earned a bachelor's degree in art from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1972 and a master's degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1974.
Williams agreed to donate works to the community college at the suggestion of Gregory C. Eckles, nephew of Williams' wife, Avonell. Eckles is director of secondary schools with
the Carroll County Board of Education.
The artist is candid about the reasons for his donation. At 81, which he described as "sort of a terminal age," he has to think about inheritance taxes.
"I had a problem [with] the number of paintings in the studio that would be left. The family would have had to pay the Internal Revenue Service, which would have impoverished them," he said.
To reduce the tax burden on his estate, Williams donated works to CCC and to museums in Daytona Beach and Tallahassee, Fla.
Williams has received fellowships and awards, including a distinguished professor of art award from the University of Florida, but is not an instantly recognizable name.
"He is known. He's not a household name like de Kooning and others who painted in midcentury America. He didn't want to stay in New York, and I think that kept him out on the edges of fame. But his work is great," Ball said.
Williams didn't like the New York scene. "It was all the drive for money and fame. That's nonsense. I rather think that what is important is the statement the individual makes on canvas," he said.
His canvas statements include snakes, which represent the darker side of humanity, bursting out of the punch bowl of Earth or dancing in ecstasy; dark arrows on bleak landscapes, which grew out of his World War II assignment to map troop movements in Europe; and the audience, humankind, in its folly and victories.
"Snakes have an emotional life, just as we do. In our hypothalamus, the primitive brain, all the evidence suggests that it's a rather reptilian brain," Williams said.
He is an existentialist, a philosophy associated with a sense of abandonment and absurdity. His bleak outlook "doesn't mean I don't enjoy a lot of nature," Williams said.
A native of Indianapolis, Williams spent most of his childhood in Pennsylvania. He took Works Progress Administration art lessons during the Depression and studied at the Art Students League in New York.
Drafted in 1942, he served with the Army in Europe. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1950 and a master's degree in 1951 from Pennsylvania State University, then began a teaching career.
In 1963, Williams published "Notes for a Young Painter," a collection of essays, seminars and lectures that has become a classic handbook for young artists.
He retired from teaching in 1982.
The show of Williams' art is from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the college, 1601 Washington Road. Dede Young, an authority on Williams' life and work, will give a talk at 1: 30 p.m.
The show runs through Dec. 14.
Pub Date: 11/01/98